Yellowstone National Park is a gem, one of those places everyone should visit at least once in their lives. We recommend a week’s visit to properly explore the park, although you could spend a lifetime hiking and camping and touring through it. But here’s where to go over one week in Yellowstone!
Quick notes on how we did our trip:
- We made the decision early on to rent an RV and drive/stay through the park, rather than tent camping or staying in a hotel outside the park (which gets $$$) and driving in each day. If you can do this, we HIGHLY recommend it. We rented an RV through Outdoorsy (like AirBnb for RVs).
- Make campground reservations far in advance! You’ll need to plan months ahead to reserve your spots.
- Order groceries from store outside the park and bring them in. We pre-ordered from a Walmart in Idaho Falls, simply picked them up, then were on our way.
Our route generally followed the Grand Loop Road that circles through the park. You can enter from anywhere and follow this route. We rented an RV from a family in Idaho Falls, so we flew in there, picked up our ride, then drove the three hours in through West Yellowstone. Our loop took us counter-clockwise through the park.
- We followed Route 191 into the park, heading toward Bridge Bay campground for our first night.
- Immediately we began seeing steam rising in the air, so we parked at Fountain Paint Pots to stroll the boardwalks.
- We recommend visiting Yellowstone’s features at different times of day, so you can see how they look in different lights.
- Most major features in Yellowstone have a parking lot, although they can fill up, so be prepared.
- Many of the features include varying boardwalks and trails, so you can decide how far you want to go, whether a quick look or longer hike.
- After breakfast in the RV, we packed up and headed over to Lake Yellowstone, specifically the Lake Clinic where my youngest brother Greg was working at the time. He (and his Great Dane Earl) gave us a tour of the facility.
- We drove further east to the Fishing Bridge Visitors Center to see exhibits related to birds, star-gazing, and much more. (The RV park there was under renovations when we visited.)
- From there we turned north up the Grand Loop Road, which follows the Yellowstone River.
- Throughout the entire park you’ll find plenty of places to safely pull off and observe. Make sure you take advantage of those moments (as long as you’re not blocking any roadways or endangering yourself or anyone else!)
- We stopped at the LeHardy Rapids to follow a short boardwalk down to the river
- And got a first good look at bubbling, stinky mud at Mud Volcano
- We brought an infrared thermometer to check the water’s temperature, which easily soared from 175 degrees F to above boiling
- All the guides will tell you to be on the lookout for – and safely stay clear of – wildlife. Expect the occasional bison jam, watch for elk, maybe spot bear or a moose, or wolves or coyotes. You’ll see signs of wildlife all over over the place, including bark scratched off trees.
- Absolutely stop at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. There are multiple trails and entry points to see the falls from the north or south rim.
- The most popular spot is Artist Point, which offers a spectacular view right up the canyon. (Fun fact: if you go to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., you can see some of the large-scale paintings created by artists in the 1870s from this point.)
- In addition to Artist Point, we hiked a couple smaller trails on the south rim, then hiked the Brink of the Lower Falls on the north rim. It’s a steep trail of switchbacks, so be prepared (especially for the climb back up), but it’s worth the view.
- Our campground that night was the Canyon Campground. We made dinner and s’mores over the fire, and avocado toast with eggs in the RV the next morning.
IT’S WORTH NOTING HERE that, if you want to create a shorter loop that bypasses Lamar Valley, Tower Junction, and Mammoth, you can head directly west from Canyon Village on the Norris Canyon Road to Norris Basin.
- That morning we traveled north from Canyon Village over the Dunraven Pass, a beautiful but harrowing pass around Mount Washburn. The road gets windy, so take your time with it, especially in an RV. But it’s worth the views.
- We stopped by the Roosevelt Lodge, a popular historic lodge and restaurant. It’s located at Tower Junction, and features cabins, horseback riding, a gas station. The junction leads you further north on the Grand Loop or east through Lamar Valley and out the northeast entrance.
- Along the way, we highly recommend pulling off to see Tower Fall. It’s an accessible hike with lovely views.
- We’d recommend driving out through the Lamar Valley. There are terrific spots for fly fishing, camping and hiking, and you can spot features like the dormant Soda Butte.
- On my brother and sister-in-law’s recommendation, we turned off the main road up Slough Creek Campground Road. Not far in we found places to park and observe the stunning scenery, including a roaming herd of bison.
- We drove all the way out the Northeast Entrance, then turned around
- Traveling the Lamar Valley, we found several scenic viewpoints to pull off and observe. The Lamar Valley is a popular for wolf enthusiasts to spot packs.
- We also experienced our first major bison jam. There’s nothing you can do about these – you can’t drive near the bison, you certainly shouldn’t honk or try to nudge them out of the way, and you certainly should NOT get out of your car. Bison are fast, huge, and dangerous. We lucked out with a front row seat to a bison we affectionately named “Roadie,” who calmly stood in the center of the road for 15-20 minutes before sauntering on.
- We stayed a second night at Canyon because of its central location.
- For dinner that night we visited The Eatery at Canyon Lodge, a dining hall-style restaurant in the village where everyone can choose what they like to eat.
- There’s also the Canyon General Store, in case you need snacks, drinks, or to stock up on groceries.
- We still built a fire (you can get firewood at the campground office) to cook a mini English breakfast in the morning!
- In the morning we continued north up the Grand Loop Road toward Mammoth Hot Springs. It’s here that the road begins curving west. Plenty of little spots to stop, hike, and observe.
- Not far past the junction is the Petrified Tree. RVs can’t drive all the way up, so we decided to skip it. However…
- …in front of the Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth, there’s another small petrified tree! It’s worth spending a little time touring the center and its exhibits.
- Mammoth is the only area that remains open all year-round. In addition to the hot springs (see below), there are campgrounds, a general store, ranger station, old Fort Yellowstone, and other sites.
- You’ll often spot elk around Mammoth; we saw them camped out near the clinic. A park ranger was present to remind folks to stay away. Apparently the elk are a common sight, and they help trim all the grass in the area!
- The Mammoth Hot Springs are obviously the major feature. You can visit the lower sections for sights like the dormant Liberty Cap, Devil’s Thumb, Minerva Terrace, and many more mounds and terraces.
- The upper terraces are worth a view as well. You’ll need to drive further down the road to park, but the boardwalk takes you around more springs.
- After our time at Mammoth, we turned up the North Entrance Road toward the Wyoming/Montana line. Just over the border we stopped for one of the highlights of the trip: a dip in the Boiling River.
- NOTE for 2023: As of this writing, the Boiling River is currently closed following all the flooding in June of 2022, and it may never reopen as it once was.
- If that area ever returns to the way it once was, it’s worth a dip. The Boiling River was a convergence of a hot spring with the chilly Gardiner River. There was a narrow area where the temperatures canceled each other out and you could float in their confluence. It was a bizarre sensation; you could stand with one foot feeling uncomfortably warm and the other going numb with the cold.
- Continuing up the road will send you out the north entrance with the iconic Roosevelt Arch. This lands you in Gardiner, Montana.
- We spent the evening at Rocky Mountain RV Park, now Sun Outdoors Yellowstone North. It was nice to have an actual RV park to hook up to water and electric, do some laundry at their facilities, go mini-golfing on their rustic course. The park sits up on a hillside, so the views of Gardiner and Yellowstone are lovely. And it’s good for a little stargazing!
- The next morning we drove back through Mammoth and began our final leg down the west side of the Grand Loop Road.
- We made a few small stops, including the overlook at the Golden Gate bridge.
- Our big stop that day was the Norris Geyser Basin. This is a big collection of geysers, pools, vents.
- This was one moment when we were happy for the RV. We ran into traffic getting into the basin, so while we crawled along we made sandwiches and got ready. By the time we arrived we easily found a spot in the RV parking and were ready to go.
- Follow the boardwalks to see all sorts of spectacular features in the basin. There’s also a museum.
- One of the more famous stops is Steamboat Geyser. Its eruptions are hard to predict, but if you luck out and see one, you’ll see the world’s tallest active geyser, usually topping 300 feet!
- Another worthy stop is Gibbon Falls, descending 84 feet down the rim of the ancient caldera created by a volcanic eruption hundreds of thousands of years ago. This stop, and the roads aroudn it, are some of the best areas to get a sense of the size of the caldera.
- Our accommodations that night was Madison Campground. It’s yet another beautiful setting. Our site put us just over the ridge from the Madison River, where we waded and explored for hours.
- A big part of our next day was spent down the road from Madison to the Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the more famous features of Yellowstone. There are several springs in that condensed area, including Excelsior Geyser and Deep Blue Geyser.
- This also puts you near Fountain Paint Pots, which we visited on our first night.
- Be sure to visit Grand Prismatic up close, then drive south to hike up the overlook trail. That gives you a better view of its signature color.
- A couple popular drives are closed to RVs, but if you have a smaller vehicle, it’s worth the loop, like Firehole Canyon Drive and Firehole Lake Drive.
- That afternoon our boys stayed with our sister-in-law while my brother Greg took Beth and I on a back country hike. I can’t show you everywhere we went, but it was a highlight of the trip. After spending days keeping to boardwalks, obeying signage, etc., we struck off into the wilderness. We saw springs, steaming pools, crusty and hissing ground – all up close.
- While you are allowed to hike anywhere, it needs to be done with caution. Go as group, have an experienced guide, carry bear spray, use common sense.
- Our final full day we hit up Yellowstone’s most famous feature: Old Faithful. The geyser still erupts about every 90 minutes, with crowds gathering on benches and boardwalks in anticipation of each show.
- Certainly stick around to catch Old Faithful doing what it does best, but don’t forget that there are trails, geysers, pools, and other features all around that area. You can hike trails of varying lengths. We recommend hiking the loop that takes you above Old Faithful and watching an eruption from there.
- There are plenty of other activities around Old Faithful, from lodges and restaurants to a visitor education center (where we met an artist-in-residence at work), museum, and Tribal Heritage Center.
- We liked the casual Geyser Grill with burgers and fries, and fun kid’s meals that look like the iconic yellow busses.
- It’s worth exploring the Old Faithful Inn as well. In addition to actually staying in the hotel, you’ll find big lobbies for sitting, a gift shop, coffee stand, and a full restaurant.
- We hit up the breakfast buffet our last full morning. It’s really a fun (and filling) experience.
- The Inn is rich in history and architectural detail, so if you’re visiting in season we recommend one of the free tours. Offered at 9:30 a.m, 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and 3:30 p.m., the tours are led by knowledgeable guides who will take you in, out, up, and down the Inn. We learned a lot, and afterward we grabbed coffee and sat out on the terrace!
And that concludes our weeklong tour of Yellowstone National Park! On our final morning we packed up, made a last stop at Madison Campground to empty our gray and black water tanks, then drove out through West Yellowstone and back to drop off the RV in Idaho Falls.
1. Obey signage and stay on the paths!
Although we’re making fun of the signage here, make sure you follow it! Yellowstone can be dangerous, with boiling and acidic water, crusty ground, wild animals. Remember that you’re the visitor! Stay far away from wild animals and observe from a distance. Stay on marked paths, too, as ground can be uneven or give away.
2. Book ahead!
If you’re planning to camp or park an RV, you’ll need to reserve your campgrounds anywhere from 6-12 months ahead of time.
3. Be patient!
Reports say the park has been incredibly busy in recent years, so assume you’ll have some wait times, that trails may be crowded, or parking may be at a premium. Try visiting more popular features earlier in the morning or in the evening.